Who was Ron Thom? His name is not particularly well-known in Europe, but anybody who knows architecture is aware of his contribution to North American architecture. It’s not by chance that one of his best-known creations is a Case Study House in Vancouver: a wonderful 1959 home totally inspired by Wright’s organic architecture and his famous Fallingwater home. However, the building was in a state of neglect, until West Coast Modern - a Canadian Real Estate Operator that offers a strong approach to fine architecture - decided to take up the challenge of enhancing this property that seemed destined for demolition, thus allowing everyone to rediscover this little gem. Nevertheless, the essential aspect is that this is a Case Study House. So what does it mean?
Case Study Houses were part of a programme created by John Entenza, editor of the Los Angeles-based Arts & Architecture magazine, in the post-war period. He sponsored and published several design competitions in his magazine, focusing on modern inexpensive easy-to-build homes. This gave rise to the Case Study House programme, devised to respond to the housing scarcity, anticipating the imminent building boom that would follow World War II and the Great Depression. What he sought was, in short, a prototype of a replicable modern home for the average American. In practice, the programme aim was for every architect to create a house that could be built identically, almost mass-produced.
The Case Study House programme brought a great new idea to American architecture: it enabled design and modernism to become part of housing that was also accessible to the less well-off classes. Modular components, multi-purpose objects… But Entenza’s project was far more ambitious. He initially invited Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and five other architects to present prototypes, and he wanted all eight of their houses to remain open to the public until they were lived in. The project met with immediate success and lasted through to 1966, with 350,000 visitors viewing the ‘open’ houses before the homes were then inhabited.
Today 20 houses remain, but 36 experimental prototypes ‒ many of which were never built ‒ featured in the magazine. This is why Ron Thom’s house in Vancouver is a gem worth visiting, and can even be purchased. The interesting aspect is that a real estate group named West Coast Modern has decided to build its business around this type of edifice, revolutionising the classic world of real estate and property transactions. Here’s how they sell so many houses.
What the people at West Coast Modern do (well) is they present a property with an awareness that differs from that of customary estate agents. They study and really get to know its architecture, and narrate this to potential buyers, providing these customers with the key to the world they are seeking. In essence, the property agents create authentic movie sets, they open up the homes, they encourage clients to visit these houses, and leave imagination to do the rest. Viewings can be booked online, also through an app.
The ingenious part of this approach is that it responds to a growing demand for ‘exceptional’ living spaces, including historic modern homes from the mid-20th century besides new contemporary builds. It is certainly an innovative method that could be copied, also in Europe.
Indeed, this Case Study House ‒ this architectural masterpiece by Ron Thom ‒ is totally inspired by Wright’s Fallingwater. It has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and is developed on two levels. How much does it cost? US $1,798,000 is the price tag shown on the West Coast Modern website. The ridiculous thing is that the building was nearly knocked down by the last owner but luckily West Vancouver District Council did not authorise it. The problem is that recent years have seen North American modernist architecture under real threat, and this episode is not an isolated one.
The knocking down of Marcel Breuer’s iconic home on Long Island stirred an outcry, and this is part of the trend also affecting the Case Study Houses. Architectural heritage conservationists worldwide are committed to ensuring that modernist architecture is not completely wiped out to make space for ‘something else’. One such non-profit organisation is Docomomo US, which focuses on cultural heritage, and it declared that the loss of Marcel Breuer’s house is the most serious to have taken place in recent years. Designed by Breuer himself for Bertram and Phyllis Geller in 1945, the home standing just outside New York was one of the most important projects through which the architect formulated his unmistakable style, which took him to become one of the greatest architects of the post-war period.
Geller I, as it was nicknamed, was the first two-family home to be designed by this Hungarian architect who, at the time, had just left the studio he co-ran with Walter Gropius. The unusual features of this extremely modern design meant that the project distinctly contrasted with the conventions of conventional architecture: Breuer in fact separated the bedrooms from the day zone through a hybrid space acting as a buffer, instead of splitting them into two floors. The furnishings were also designed by the architect and became icons of avant-garde aesthetics; a site-specific painting by Jackson Pollock was later sold separately from the house and today hangs in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran.
Subsequent owners reworked the interiors and lightened the earthy tones of the wood and stone structure of the initial design, nevertheless leaving the layout intact over the years. For this reason, architectural heritage preservationists deemed that the house could join the National Register of Historic Places, with the hope of listing it among the historic buildings. However, this did not happen and the Geller I house was not saved from the wrecking ball.
This loss shows how the real estate market is often able to seriously endanger architecture. Safeguarding buildings ‒ particularly modernist examples ‒ is therefore an important issue, and one that will certainly be impactful in the coming years. The point is that conservation of houses and homes is difficult and costly, firstly because these are private edifices. Regulations in almost all countries in the world focus mainly on preserving commercial, cultural and civic buildings, because these are generally accessible to the public. This gap in the legislation has so far done sizeable damage. The hope is that the real estate market too recognises the extra value of these architecture examples, a little like West Coast Modern is doing by showcasing the great potential of ‘designer houses’.
Location: Vancouver, Canada
Real Estate Operator: West Coast Modern
Project by Ron Thom
Project completion: 1959
Photography by Jon McMorran, courtesy of West Coast Modern